This is the last of my presentation to the OPC ladies. Nancy Wilson recently wrote about the importance of serving those nearby, and Anne Steele’s life was a wonderful example of this.
In a little town called Broughton in southern England, not far from where some of Jane Austen’s novels are set, Anne Steele was born in 1717, during the reign of the first King George of England, and she died during the reign of the third King George, the one who declared war on the American colonies in 1775. Anne came from a family of Dissenters and belonged to a group called Particular Baptists.
The Noncomformists or Dissenters were Christians who did not belong to the Church of England. As we saw in the lives and deaths of the two Covenanter Margarets, the Church of England did not like anyone dissenting from their form of worship, and many paid dearly for sticking with their convictions. By the 1700s, the harsher persecutions had ended, but anyone who was a Dissenter was treated as a second-class citizen and excluded from universities and influential positions in society. Many, like the Steeles, turned to business and often became well-to-do, and there were many academies set up to educate the children of Dissenters which became known for their academic excellence. They learned to make lemonade from their lemons, or to use a more spiritual metaphor, they saw God give them beauty for ashes.
Anne’s father, William, was successful in the timber trade, but he was also the pastor of the small Particular Baptist church in Broughton. He and his wife Anne had two children they named after themselves: first a son, then their daughter. Mrs. Steele died after the birth of her third baby, and the baby also died. William (who perhaps suffered a little from a lack of imagination later made up for by his daughter) remarried…a woman named Anne. She was a godly woman if a bit of a worry-wart (which her prolific journal writing reveals), and she enthusiastically plunged into mothering her two stepchildren. When her daughter Mary was born, she was very careful not to play favorites, and she was truly a mother to her husband’s other children. She and young Anne grew very close.
The services at the little Broughton church were simple: the pastor prayed extemporaneous prayers, metrical psalms and hymns were “lined” by the congregation (someone sings a line, the congregation repeats, until they have sung the entire song), and then the sermon. Baptisms of believers were a big event and were performed only after the candidate gave a convincing account of his or her conversion. For children this did not usually happen until mid-teens. These Baptists also had a strong reformed doctrine of God’s providence, which sustained Anne’s faith during her struggles with of ill health.
When Anne was fourteen, her stepmother wrote that both her girls contracted the “ague.” Today it is believed that what she suffered from was recurring malaria. Sharon James describes Anne’s suffering this way in her book In Trouble and in Joy:
Chronic malaria would have had a progressively debilitating effect on Anne, the major consequences of which would have been anaemia, weakness, and susceptibility to other infections. It also caused fits associated with high fever, and left Anne vulnerable to consumption. For the rest of her life, Anne never enjoyed any sustained periods of good health, and she was often in great pain. She seems to have also suffered from terrible stomach pain (probably peptic ulcer disease), and from agonizing toothache (common in a century when dental hygiene was primitive and the treatment barbaric).
My husband likes to say that whenever we become tempted to go back to the “good old days” we need to think of two words: “modern dentistry.”
I’m ashamed to admit how I excuse my cranky attitude whenever I have a small physical infirmity. Though Anne lived much of her life with acute pain, Sharon James says that “cheerfulness was the keynote of Anne’s character. She aimed to give pleasure to those around her, even when she was suffering herself.” This disposition matured over time from fighting to maintain her trust in God to a calm, resigned trust in His sovereignty. When she was 20, Anne had been courted by a young man who drowned before their romance could blossom. After that, she received two more proposals of marriage, one rather passionate from a young pastor (“If the greatness of a Persons love will make up for the Want of Wit, Wealth & Beauty, then may I humbly lay claim to your Favour”), but she turned them both down. She was content with her life at home and her service in her father’s church, and perhaps her ill health made her hesitant to risk having a family.
Anne lived at a time when England was becoming a highly literate place. Newspapers were black and white and read all over, poetry was popular, and wasting time reading trashy romance novels was in vogue. In fact, this was an era called the Romantic Movement…people wanted to throw off the stodgy and embrace the natural and spontaneous. Writing was a field considered acceptable for the fairer sex, and Anne was a gifted writer, particularly of poems and hymns. She began writing hymns to fill a need in her father’s church. There was a musical transition in the church at that time, from singing psalms only to including metrical hymns, and while Isaac Watts was in the Top 40, ministers often looked for hymns that had themes which would complement their sermons. Anne first began to write poems and hymns for her own devotional use, but her father encouraged her writing and she started to write hymns for use in his church. When she was 43, her work was published in a 2-volume set, and in genuine humility she used the pseudonym “Theodosia” rather than her own name. Her hymns were written mostly for the benefit of her local congregation, but they “struck a chord” with many, and the words she wrote on suffering were most appreciated by others enduring troubles of their own. Today it’s hard to find a hymn by Anne Steele in your hymnbook, but she became the best-known Nonconformist female hymnwriter of her day, and had an important role in the devolopment of 18th century hymn-writing.
Thou lovely source of true delight
Whom I unseen adore
Unveil Thy beauties to my sight
That I might love Thee more,
Oh that I might love Thee more.
Thy glory o’er creation shines
But in Thy sacred Word
I read in fairer, brighter lines
My bleeding, dying Lord,
See my bleeding, dying Lord
’Tis here, whene’er my comforts droop
And sin and sorrow rise
Thy love with cheering beams of hope
My fainting heart supplies,
My fainting heart’s supplied
But ah! Too soon the pleasing scene
Is clouded o’er with pain
My gloomy fears rise dark between
And I again complain,
Oh and I again complain
Jesus, my Lord, my life, my light
Oh come with blissful ray
Break radiant through the shades of night
And chase my fears away,
?Won’t You chase my fears away
Then shall my soul with rapture trace
The wonders of Thy love
But the full glories of Thy face
Are only known above,
They are only known above
Like Elizabeth Prentiss, Anne Steele did not become gloomy in her trials. She saw them as opportunities to know and praise and love her Savior more. She lived and died in the same small town, serving God in the same small church. She died in 1778 after spending the last six years of her life as an invalid. It wasn’t until after she died that she received recognition for her writing, but that was how she wanted it. She did not want to be a showy flower, but she was a woman who bloomed where she was planted.
We have a children’s picture book called If Everybody Did, and it’s one of the most profound books in my library. I frequently remind my children of the words of the title… Let’s think about it in relation to what we’ve just heard…. As Elisabeth Elliot said, these lessons I’ve shared are for ordinary folk like us. What if we all believed that and lived like we believed it? What if we all made “More love to thee, O Christ” our motto? What if we all prayed to God for more of Him, less of me…and meant it? What if we all refused to compromise our faith, like the Two Margarets? What if we all did not grow weary with well-doing, even if we never saw the benefit of our sacrificial service, like Margaret de Navarre and her daughter, Jeanne? What if we all showed truly sacrificial love to our husbands and children, like Anne Bradstreet? What if we all looked for every opportunity we could find to serve in our local church, like Anne Steele?
Are we waiting for perfection before we use our hands and feet in God’s service? Look around you: there are younger women who need encouragement and help, girls who need godly role models, young mothers who are overwhelmed and feeling as if their job is not really that important. Teach them, model a godly love for them, give them wisdom from your experience, show them how to trust God better in their troubles and their joys. And you younger women, don’t be so picky!! Befriend those older ladies, even if you don’t see eye-to-eye on every detail. Believe me, just from living longer than you, they have plenty of common sense to offer, and you will be encouraged by spending more time with them. Sisters in Christ, God not only has ordained every circumstance for us, but He has created us to be who we are, living in this time. He has made us women with unique gifts and callings so that we can pour ourselves out in His service, to His glory, as we are stepping Heavenward.